The Lion & The Unicorn

By Tom Ward

A policeman sets out to investigate a murder in a near-future where bad taste is illegal.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Chapter 11 - Icarus

Hey everyone. It's been a while so I wanted to share an excerpt from Chapter 11 of the book. I think it gives a great overview of the sort of world the book is living in, and I hope it piques your interest...

 

Chapter Eleven – Icarus

I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I'd been having this feeling, lately, like I’d slipped out of myself and was watching my body move without my mind telling it to. It often happened as I walked along the street, and I had the same feeling then as I lay there trying to sleep. Eventually, I gave up and watched television instead. There had been another mass shooting, this time in Bournemouth. Elsewhere, UK forces had scored a great victory in Roskilde, with only twenty fatalities. They didn’t say on which side. In extraterrestrial news, the debris from the S.T.A.R rockets had caused a ring of garbage to gather around the moon. Tonight, for the first time, we would be able to see it’s shadow, a faint black band hanging over the lunar surface, like an erased pencil mark in a favourite book. On and on the news went, and on the other channel a re-run of a documentary on Basquiat. On the third and final channel, an exercise programme for the over-seventies. Bagby always said sitting like this in the glow of the screen this helped him think. Helped the pieces slide into place. But I was no closer to knowing where Bagby might have gone, or even if he might be in danger. Nor had I much hope of finding the Kid in White without Bagby’s help. Or Bagby without the kid.

I turned off the television as the sun came up. I showered, took my wellness pills and left the flat. Stohl was waiting outside, leaning against his car, a recyclable polystyrene cup on the bonnet.

“Green tea,” he said, handing it to me.

“I thought we were meeting at the station?”

“We’ve got a long drive, and the station’s in the opposite direction.”

I nodded as I slipped into the passenger seat, hoping I might be able to make up a few lost hours on the drive.

The roads were emptier than usual, even accounting for the new petrol allowance. Stohl moved easily among what little traffic there was. Fuel may have become a luxury, but police and government vehicles were for the most part unaffected. We tore along, heading north and then west until London was behind us and grey satellite towns spread out in front of us. After an hour of this we were into green country lanes watched over by bare-branched trees and the odd empty house, their windows boarded up or broken. An hour and a half after we set off, we turned off the main road and took a narrow second turning uphill through a dense pine wood. Ten minutes later we came to a smooth, black wall reaching eight feet overhead and stretching away into the woods on either side. Its surface was unblemished, with no light or shadow falling across it, like dulled obsidian. Stohl stopped the car beside it. A red light appeared from somewhere among tree branches still wet with last night’s rain, and soundlessly scanned his face. Apparently satisfied, the light blinked off and the gate slid open.

We passed through onto a smooth, dark driveway, which drew us among yet more fir trees. I was certain, at its conclusion, that we would come to a stately home, old and gutted, its interiors replaced with the best and shiniest of high tech laboratories – Vangelis’ secretive and sweeping countryside nerve centre. In actuality, we emerged from the trees to be confronted with a long, low building seemingly carved out of a single piece of the same black material, its walls sloping gently upwards so that the entire structure appeared to be rising up out of the fog like a futuristic ark.

“That isn’t imposing at all,” I said as Stohl stopped the car in a carpark of which we were the only occupants.

“I used to call it ‘Carfax’ as a boy,” Stohl said. “It used to terrify me. But don’t worry. There are no vampires here.”

We got out of the car and Stohl shivered, despite the November heat. “Let’s get this over with and get back to London.”

We stepped forward. The blackness opened up with a whoosh of automatic doors. Light spilled out. We found ourselves in a bright, glass-sided atrium that reached all the way up to a skylight in the very highest part of the building, perhaps five stories up. Before us on the other side of a soundproof glass panel automated machines worked endlessly to construct something out of metal sheets and circuitboards. Apart from the quiet hum of Schubert and the efficient air conditioning, we were alone.

“Space rockets,” a voice said, taking me, at least, by surprise.

Stohl and I turned as one to find Wallace standing there, dressed in loose-fitting trousers, a white t-shirt under a midnight blue blazer and a white pocket square, looking every inch the hung-over CEO. He seemed to beam with pride as he directed our attention to the construction taking place on the other side of the glass screen. “If you’d told me when I was five,” he said, “that I’d be building rocket ships for a living, do you know what I would have thought?”

“That you were crazy?” I said.

“Ha. No, I would have thought you were exactly right. I’ve always thought that there’s so much going on in the world, from war to famine to injustice, that we need a little bit of a distraction. We need to look to the skies again, with hope in our hearts.” He paused for a moment and I thought he was about to wipe his eyes. Either that, or go full JFK. “We’re going to do it, you know, land a man on Venus in the next five years. Nuclear fuel is the answer. We’ll be able to make the journey there in days, instead of weeks. Maybe even hours. What? Don’t look so perturbed, we don’t carry out our nuclear tests here. That’s all done far away. Safe in the North.”

“Uncle,” Stohl began.

Wallace clapped his hands. “I’m sorry. My apologies. It was a late night and an early morning. I’m rambling. You wanted to speak to Fomalhaut. He’s in the middle of something at the moment, but why don’t I give you the tour?”

Before we could respond, he was ushering us through a door that had appeared in the side of the glass wall. I caught Stohl’s eyes. He sighed as we followed on. We passed down a long corridor with windows on either side. Behind them were coders seated at humming computer screens, engineers tinkering with drones, scientists in face masks tinkering with chemical formulae, every facet of Vangelis’ mission laid out for visitors to take in.

“Do you know what we make here?” Wallace asked, turning to me.

“Delivery drones, surveillance drones, military and police drones, prosthetic limbs, computer hardware, software, inner-city surveillance systems, outer city surveillance systems, waste disposal rockets, military exosuits, weapons and medical equipment, televisions, railway infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, in vitro meat, wellness pills….in short, everything.”

“Ha!” he laughed again. “Not quite everything, but I admit we’re close. You could say we make the future here. And we were born out of the future, too; the revolution was the best thing that happened to us. The protestors were right: consolidate the government, consolidate industry, and things move along much more quickly.”

We came to a cafeteria, one hundred empty tables stretching to the back of the room, the floor, furnishings and fittings a brilliant white, with only a service hatch and a stack of black trays to indicate what the room was used for.

“This is really all I can show you without revealing our secrets,” Wallace said. “The majority of our space is given over to workshops and testing stations, and unless you want to get kitted out in lab coats and protective eyeglasses, it’s probably not worth your time, I’m afraid.”

He indicated that we should take a seat beside an expensive-looking and finely-engineered coffee machine. “I’m glad I had chance to show you around,” he said without a hint of irony. “Fomalhaut will meet you here in a moment. If you’ll excuse me I’ve a press release to sign off regarding last night’s event. Have some coffee if you need it, and I’ll see you again before you go.” He retracted his steps, heading back to the labs, leaving us alone in the centre of the room.

 

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